One of the more challenging pastoral issues I faced as a youth pastor was that of differing spiritual experiences between the young people I pastored. It is a challenge that no doubt exists across the board regardless of age or stage of life. Some people have discernible experiences of God, while others do not, even when they seek him and cry out to him in prayer. This isn’t helped by Christians who give the impression that feeling God’s presence or hearing his voice is and should be a common experience. It was not the case for many biblical characters, nor for many faithful Christians through history up to today.
While there are several approaches one could take to consider this issue, there is one that I would like to focus on which comes from the first verses of the Letter to the Hebrews.
Hebrews 1:1-2 – God has spoken
These verses remind readers that “Long ago… God spoke to our ancestors by the prophets” and affirms that “in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son”. The key idea plainly asserted by these opening words is that God speaks. If God exists and is important to us, it clearly follows that we will want to hear from him.
There are two further things here that are easily missed.
The first is that God has spoken in particular places: long ago it was in his prophets or messengers, and more recently and ultimately it has been in his Son, Jesus.
Secondly, in his communication to us God has set the agenda – he has already chosen what it is he wants us to hear from him.
That isn’t to say our priorities don’t matter to him. Rather, the point is that we need to make sure we are paying attention to what he most wants us to hear. If you’re not interested in what God has prioritised, I do not think you can expect you should hear him otherwise.
It is true that God may and often does concede in this; part of his drawing people to himself includes him meeting us where we are at. But responding to you standing on the beach at night while shouting at the sky is not his normal mode of communication. God hasn’t promised to speak out of the sky to you. But he has promised to give his Holy Spirit and to be found by those who earnestly seek him. Furthermore, he has given ways to help us make sense of God and his gospel and our life in him. Have you used them? Scripture, prayer, teachers of the faith, – you can’t say you’ve searched earnestly if you haven’t made good use of these. Christian history has many examples of long but faithful searchers.
Experiences don’t make or break the Christian life.
It is worth remembering that spiritual experiences are not everything in the Christian life. Their presence or absence do not insure flourishing or lifelessness. Contrast two of the kings in Jerusalem from the Old Testament.
Solomon (1 Kings 3-11) had God appear and speak with him in a dream not once, but twice, and was clearly blessed by God via these experiences. Nonetheless, he wandered from God and his kingdom suffered the consequences of his failed faith.
On the other hand, King Josiah (2 Kings 22-23) had no such experience from God but responded firmly to the reading of God’s word in the Scripture. His story was a tragic one, but he is nonetheless remembered as one of the best kings of Judah who stood faithful to the Lord.
Spiritual experiences can be a great boost for faithful Christian living, but in the end they count for nothing if what God has already clearly spoken has little value to you. Do seek to hear God, but make sure you aren’t neglecting to listen in the right place. He has already spoken.